What We’re Watching: Iran nuke talks resume, Myanmar massacres civilians, Ukraine laughs it all off, Taliban confusion continues, Kashmir gerrymandering
Iran nuclear talks are back on. After a brief holiday break, negotiations to end Iran's nuclear program in exchange for removing economic sanctions against Tehran resume on Monday in Vienna. What are the prospects? About as dim as the last time we wrote about this. Western powers say time is running out because the Iranians are slow-walking the talks so they can continue to enrich uranium well beyond the limits in the original agreement, while the Iranians are playing hardball by demanding that all sanctions be lifted first. Iran also wants a guarantee that the US won't ditch a new deal the way Donald Trump did with the old one in 2018. If Iran keeps enriching uranium at the current pace, the current terms being discussed could soon be obsolete. However, should the talks fail in the end, the US says it has military options to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb.
Massacre of civilians in Myanmar. Myanmar experienced its worst single case of state-sponsored violence since the February coup on Christmas Eve, when the army gunned down more than 30 civilians — including women and children — and torched their vehicles in Kayah state. Several people are still missing, including two aid workers from Save the Children. It's unclear what prompted the attack, but it took place amid heavy fighting between the military and armed resistance groups in the area. Two weeks ago, soldiers had 11 civilians burned alive because they were suspected of belonging to an anti-junta guerrilla army. Both massacres show that the generals are not backing down in their campaign to wipe out those who oppose their takeover, which ended Myanmar's brief experiment with democracy after decades of military rule. The fighting has also recently intensified along the border with Thailand, whose hardline PM is one of the junta's few foreign friends but doesn't want a refugee crisis on his doorstep (and has already sent back thousands of migrants).
Ukraine's comedian cabinet. As Russia threatens to invade, Ukraine's president is looking to defend his homeland... with a bit of humor. In recent months Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who was a famous comedian before he entered politics, and even played the role of president in a TV series before his 2019 election — has hired members of his old comedy troupe to occupy top positions in his government, including intelligence chief. Zelenskiy is known to crack jokes in moments of extreme tension, and last summer mocked Vladimir Putin for writing a long essay describing Russia and Ukraine as a fraternal single nation. While supporters say Ukraine's president wants his former buddies because they'll be loyal, critics argue that the bad optics of a government being run by comedians who may be out of their depth when faced with a master political strategist like Vladimir Putin. With 100,000 Russian troops at their border, the last thing the Ukrainians need is a bad joke, or even worse an amateur mistake that Putin can use to his advantage.
Will the real Taliban please stand up? The Taliban seem to be adopting a classic one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to governance. Last week, at a conference attended by dozens of foreign ministers from across the Islamic world, their top diplomat claimed that all government departments had resumed operations. But on Sunday, the new rulers of Afghanistan announced the shutdown of the main election commissions and the ministries of parliamentary affairs and peace, calling them “unnecessary.” Confusion ensues: evacuee flights have been stalled, but the passport office has been reopened. In addition, every day turns up new bizarre and oppressive regulations, such as women not being allowed to travel alone over 45 miles in a cab, which must be driven by a driver with a beard. And there is evidence that the Taliban continue to both attract jihadists and threaten regional peace. At the same time, they are also engaging officially with Iran, despite their anti-Shia stance, and have even set up a WhatsApp hotline to fight pollution. Which Taliban are running Afghanistan? Are they at all?
India (further) dividing Kashmir. You've probably heard about Democrats and Republicans tweaking US congressional districts to ensure easy wins, yet make the electoral map overall less competitive. Now India is doing something similar to favor Hindus over Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, a region long disputed with Pakistan. Majority-Muslim Kashmir — besides being the title of Led Zeppelin’s third greatest song — is bigger, has more natural resources, and has been the center of much of the decades-old insurgency against Delhi. But smaller Jammu has a slim Hindu majority, which PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government wants to give more parliamentary power than their official population merits by redrawing electoral maps. This has triggered a new communal divide in a historically tense area, which two years ago was stripped of its autonomy by Modi. Since then Kashmir has “welcomed” over half a million Indian troops and imprisoned more politicians than ever before, but gerrymandering could be a step too far. Even Kashmiri officials who have historically sided with Delhi are speaking against the measures, warning of further unrest if such divisive policies are implemented.